Ajalon - On The Threshold Of Eternity
Year of Release: 2005
Label: Threshing Floor Records
Catalog Number: TFD0205
Total Time: 69:07:00
Christian Progressive Rock is a growing segment of the genre, has been for quite a while now. There have always been spiritual progressive rock bands, Yes being a good example. But whereas Yes - or Anderson at least - was not pinpoint specific about things, it is obvious from this subgenre's classification that Ajalon, Neal Morse, and others are quite specific. I point this out as a lead in to this comment -- most of what I have heard of Christian-specific rock comes across to me as too syrupy, too lightweight and attempting to convert others. It just leaves me cold. On the other hand, it doesn't mean that I hear: "this band is a Christian" rock band, prog band or whatever and cover my ears. Just as often, a band's music is just uplifting and their message can be appreciated even by non-Christians -- or even non-anythings. But I do enter into it warily.
So it was with Ajalon. Ajalon are not syrupy. Taking out the content of their lyrics, and just listening to the vocals as part of the overall mix of music, we find that Ajalon are a rock band, writing songs that are bright and upbeat, composed with a chorus designed to be catchy, memorable. In general, Ajalon have what I call a mid-west sound. It's not quite country, as there're no twangy guitars -- well, in fact, the only twang I hear is on "Psalm 61" and it's quite mild. But certainly the mid-west influences using the same "forces" - wide open spaces, sky that goes on forever... It's a mellower, more laidback feel, with acoustic textures, even if not made on acoustic instruments. To conclude this thought... in some ways, I'm reminded of Kansas. And, no surprise, of Neal Morse (who guests on the title track). In fact, there's a strong sense of familiarity to their music. It's like walking through the door into a room of strangers and feeling instantly like they're your best friends. And it's not that Ajalon have pasted new lyrics on to well-known songs or anything, except there does seem to be passages, or in one case, a whole song, that sounds like you have heard it before.
What is that one song? "Holy Spirit Fire"-- after the first few seconds of a fluttery acoustic guitar, the track made me think of the music of Bruce Hornsby ("The Way It Is"), due to the mid-west feel and tone of the piano (guest Taylor Mesplé). But, besides that, and more specifically, the chorus very much reminds me of "St. Elmo's Fire." Vocalist Wil Henderson isn't as raspy as John Parr, but... Whether the similarity was conscious or coincidence, I don't know. Guest on this track is Phil Keaggy on co-lead vocals and he adds an acoustic guitar solo at the end - it's a bit flamenco-like, quite lovely.
Speaking of Henderson (vocals, bass), he has a very pleasing voice, even if it is a bit thin at times. It works for their music. As I said, it's approachable. The overall tone is warm, Randy George's guitar work rich and full. Even as the focus tends to be on the vocals, George does get plenty of opportunities to solo on guitar, and does so quite beautifully (he also contributes keyboards and they're every bit as prominent). Rounding out the core trio is Dan Lile on drums, and integral part of the sound, giving it its shape, but rarely does he draw undue attention to himself. That sounds like faint praise, it's not intended that way - but there's no show-off-ism here. On the other hand, it's his drums that kick things off.
Although On The Threshold Of Eternity is not their latest release, that would be This Good Place, this was my starting point (as they were on the bill for RoSFest 2010*). The album opens with the lilting instrumental "Anthem Of The Seventh Day," which has a bit of a Celtic reel feel to it, owing to the Irish whistle. Mainly percussion and whistle are the dominant instruments here. It ends in a Celtic-space rock mode, a sustained wash of keyboard breathe as a sustained note from the whistle fades. This Celtic feel recurs at other moments throughout, but without being as concrete.
"Promised Land," the first vocal track, is instantly catchy, owing to the sing-along-able chorus. It reveals that not only do they have that "mid-west" sound, but also that they aren't afraid of including a pop element to their prog. "Sword Of Goliath" is more energetic, rockier tune. However, it's not the strongest of the album's tracks, as it reveals some of the weaknesses in Henderson's voice. Instrumentally, it sounds a bit like something from Rush, yet I can't pin down a specific track ... it's a bit poppier than Rush, and parpy keyboards give it yet another character, but you can hear a bit of Rush in the bass lines (also Henderson). Another nice track of this ilk is "The Highway." It's got a darker tone that the album's other tracks, throatier guitar tones, bass, and an arrangement that ends on the down-beat rather than the up-beat. Even still, a chorus you'll remember.
The exception to all this mid-westernness is the funkier track "What Kind Of Love," which includes guest Rick Wakeman on a moog and organ solo, the latter of which is quite jazzy. Here, as you might expect, keyboards are out front, and, in a rare moment of spotlight, Lil's percussion. Geographically, the music has visited the big city. The arrangement here brings in all those bright lights, the hustle and bustle of traffic, etc. The track isn't about any of that thematically, as it's basically a question that asks, in essence, why have we forsaken the lessons of God/Jesus (take your pick), and, as the notes indicate was written in the wake of the Columbine High School shooting of April 20, 1999 (Odd that I should happen to finally write this review a few days past the 12th anniversary of that event).
"Forever I Am," one of the album's two "epics," moves through various music styles, shifting from something quite intimate (vocals and acoustic guitar), to something with a bit of a "West Coast" feel (desert highways, looking down on the lights of LA**, generated by piano, snickering percussion, throbbing bass), to "neo-prog" (an instance of widdly keys, Wakeman again), to Italian prog (that use of Irish whistle again), and to something that recalls 70s rock (the guitar solo from guest W. Mark Wilson). While I never concretely thought it in previous tracks, here Henderson sounds a bit like Steve Hogarth.
The final track is the 16-plus minute title track. After the breathy, synthy, spacey opening, we get a vocal section that, perhaps owing to Henderson sounding again like Hogarth, something that reminds me of the mellower aspects of mid-90s Marillion. At about 9-10 minutes in, we return to the spacey synth for a bridge that signals a turn in the story. A new section begins here that recalls classic Spock's Beard, and it's not just because Morse is a guest. It's the expansive arrangements that characterized that group's work while Morse was in the band; and that aspect also reminded me of the great open spaces of the mid-west.
An unlisted bonus track appears at the end. It's rockier track, but doesn't sound out of place with the core album. It reminds me of the Moody Blues... and digging a little, it turns out it's a cover of a Moody Blues song, "You And Me," so there you go. (And didn't the Moody's have an album On The Threshold Of Dream? I ask rhetorically; this is a cover from a track off Seventh Sojourn, however).
So, actually, I rather like this release. As I said the music is pleasant to listen to, catchy and easy on the ears. I mean, they're just so pleasant as they go about their business that you can't help but like them. I would like to hear Henderson's vocals just a bit punchier and not as reedy, but the instrumentation is wonderful.* Yes, it does mean this title has been in rotation for more than a year!
** Subtle hints at the Eagles and Bob Seger deliberate, although it's only the former that came to mind.
Anthem Of The Seventh Day (4:25) / The Promised Land (6:48) / Sword Of Goliath (5:51) / Holy Spirit Fire (6:09) / Psalm 61 (4:04) / What Kind Of Love (6:47) / The Highway (3:55) / Forever I Am (10:18) / On The Threshold Of Eternity (16:02)
Randy George - electric & acoustic guitars, keyboards, bass, bodhran, sitar, mandola
Wil Henderson - vocals, bass, guitar, Irish whistle
Dan Lile - drums & percussion (ex. 4)
Brian Adderbury - drums (4)
Jeremy Cays - Irish whistle (8)
Lisa Green - backing vocals (6, 7)
Phil Keaggy - vocals, acoustic guitar (4)
Taylor Mesplé - piano (4)
Neal Morse - 2nd lead vocals (9)
Rick Wakeman - Moog and organ solos (6), keyboard solos (8)
W. Mark Wilson - 2nd guitar solo (8)
Light At The End Of The Tunnel (1996)
On The Threshold Of Eternity (2005)
This Good Place (2009)
Genre: Progressive Rock
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